IT reform bill needs to 'beef up' people section, experts say

Thursday - 2/28/2013, 7:02am EST

Inadequate program management continues to plague federal IT programs. Even after a decade of focusing on training and certifications, the underlying reason so many government technology projects flounder is the lack of management skills across the workforce, according to the Government Accountability Office.

That's why former and current federal officials advocated Wednesday that the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, when it is introduced in the next three weeks, address this long-standing blemish on federal IT in new and different ways.

"We must do more to develop and retain the skills it takes to run and manage IT programs," said Richard Spires, the chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department and vice-chairman of the CIO Council, during his opening statement at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "The common denominator for successful program execution is a solid program office."

Spires said one way to ensure better program management is by creating a governmentwide Program Management Center of Excellence.

He said the center would be "staffed by detailees from agencies, which would harness best practices, tools, templates and training courses and drive the development of federalwide capabilities that programs can leverage."

Spires said poor program management is one of three root causes for failed IT programs across the government.

Two other root causes

The other ingrained problems are the lack of a standardize IT infrastructure and the need for speed and agility when it comes to acquisition and funding.

The goal of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is to update and improve how agencies buy and implement technology. The bill would be another attempt by Congress to tighten the oversight of federal IT spending, which has doubled over the last decade.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a draft version of the bill in September and has been seeking comments since from industry and government experts. He said he'd introduce a final version in Congress before members go out for spring break in March.

Wednesday's hearing was the second in a month featuring experienced IT and acquisition officials and GAO. At the first hearing, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel offered only tepid support for the bill.

Congress has not updated federal IT management since the E-Government Act of 2002 and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. Despite these two seminal laws, agencies have struggled in controling and managing IT spending.

Duplication continues to run wild

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, said agencies continue to invest billions of dollars in duplicative programs, including 622 different human resources systems, costing $2.4 billion; 580 financial management systems, costing $2.7 billion; and 777 supply chain management systems, costing $3.3 billion, despite the different laws and attempts by OMB to curb the redundant programs.

The draft FITARA addresses several longstanding issues, including improving program and project management. The draft calls for the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to examine the need for a program management job series. OFPP and OPM also would conduct a pilot around creating an IT program management career path and consider eliminating unnecessary or duplicative certifications and training in agencies.

Committee members at Wednesday's hearing heard that the provisions in the draft bill to address project and program management need to go further.

Spires said all his experience inside and out of government shows him that having these experienced program and project managers makes a huge difference in delivering successful IT systems. He said that's why creating a center of excellence is so important to the civilian agencies.

Most civilian agencies develop program managers internally and the governmentwide efforts, such as the Office of Management and Budget's 2005 memo requiring agencies to focus on project management, haven't taken hold like expected.

For example, DHS recently launched a new IT career path for its employees. It includes career profiles for 11 IT functional areas across three career levels-individual contributor, manager and senior leader. Spires wrote on the CIO Council website that "[t]he profiles are designed to help employees determine how to best prepare for new opportunities in a particular function, providing insight into typical roles, major responsibilities, general sphere of influence, competencies that contribute to success and critical development experiences."

An aging IT workforce

The Defense Department, on the other hand, has a more structured program management training and career path.